Deandre Ayton deserves big payday; can Suns afford to keep core intact? – The Arizona Republic

The Suns should pay Deandre Ayton. 

It’s so obvious to me that it’s difficult to mount an argument that goes beyond, “because, duh!” But it’s not that simple. Ayton has to want to stay, too.

Let’s examine both sides, starting with General Manager James Jones.

“They have, obviously, a big decision to make in Deandre Ayton,” said Eric Pincus, an NBA collective bargaining agreement and salary cap expert with Bleacher Report.

Pincus also is an instructor with Sports Business Classroom’s Business of Basketball Program at the Las Vegas Summer League, a training class that operates in partnership with the NBA to teach participants the business of basketball. (Alumni include, according to the organization’s website, Adam Silver, Ramona Shelburne and David Aldridge, plus front office figures and coaches across the league.)

Pincus can provide a national perspective that eludes us here in Phoenix, where some of us have been watching and rooting for Ayton since his days at Hillcrest Prep and the University of Arizona

“(Ayton) is arguably the top free agent, at least top one or two,” Pincus said. 

“When you go down the list,” Pincus said, later, “of clear free agents … he’s clearly the best center available.”

Is this core worth that kind of money?

That means Ayton is eligible for a big raise.

He earned about $12.6 million last year on his rookie contract, he could command about $35 million next season.

The numbers should matter to fans because under NBA rules, teams can only pay out so much without incurring hefty fees. That means every dollar the Suns give to one guy is a dollar they can’t give to someone else.

So, the question facing Jones becomes this: Is a core of Deandre Ayton, Devin Booker and Chris Paul good enough to compete for a championship for the next three to five years?

That core would be expensive.

The NBA’s salary cap is expected to be about $122 million next season.

Booker and Paul are due to make about $64 million, combined.

And if the Suns pay Ayton what’s known as a “max contract,” they’ll be committing about $99 million to three guys, leaving about $23 million for everybody else, which isn’t realistic. 

To put a complete team on the floor around Ayton, Booker and Paul, the Suns would have to pay the NBA’s luxury tax, a decision only a handful of teams make each year.

Those that pay the luxury tax are either legitimate title contenders — or the Lakers.

The Suns consider themselves among the NBA’s best teams and are prepared to make that financial commitment.

“That’s a part of the business,” said said Jones, the Suns’ GM. “Typically, as your team improves, your payroll increases … We’re not talking about luxury tax issues or avoiding those things. That’s not something that’s going to prevent us from continuing to build this team or keeping this team together.”

Jones signaled a desire to keep Ayton.

“Deandre had a great season, a really productive season,” Jones said. “If you look across the board, he improved. That’s a testament to him and his hard work. That’s what you expect from a player of his caliber. … We want to keep our consistency, our continuity, and keep the guys that we have.”

It’s not quite that simple.

Ayton has to want to stay, too.

Let’s examine his perspective.

The next Jokic or Antetokounmpo? 

Ayton has wanted a larger role in the offense for years.

With the Suns’ flameout in the playoffs, there is a valid case to be made that their offensive system only works in the regular season. There’s also a possibility that the Suns used the Point-5 offense so much in winning a franchise-record 64 games that they were unprepared to make adjustments after Dallas starting blitzing Booker above the 3-point line and harassing Chris Paul for 94 feet. (Either that or they were being stubborn.)

Athletically, Ayton is one of the NBA’s most talented players and he learns remarkably quickly. Maybe he should initiate the offense like Denver’s Nikola Jokic or Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo?

Maybe that means Ayton occasionally brings the ball up the floor. Maybe that means he get the ball with his back to the basket at the elbow with an opportunity to be a playmaker. Maybe that means Ayton goes from 12 shots per game to 18, like Jokic and Antetokounmpo.

(Ayton averages 17 points per game on 63 percent shooting with 12 shots. If he shot 60 percent on 18 attempts, his points per game average probably would go up at least six and likely more because he would draw more fouls, shoot more 3-pointers and have more opportunities for huge nights.)

There would be a learning curve, initially, but this could be an adjustment that makes Ayton an MVP candidate and the Suns an NBA title contender.

As a traditionalist, I’d prefer to see Ayton camp out within a few feet of the hoop at all times, but that’s not the modern NBA. It’s also hasn’t been enough to win a championship.

It’s enough to go to the finals and take a 2-0 lead (2021). It’s enough to secure the league’s best regular-season record (2022). But if they want to win it all, the Suns have to make an adjustment.  

At a certain point, offenses grind down to one-on-one play, and when that happens somebody has to go get a bucket. Booker and Paul couldn’t do it enough to prevent the Suns from losing four of five games to Dallas to end the season.

The team needs a third scorer. Ayton could be the guy.

But unless Ayton gets assurances that he’s going to be that type of primary offensive weapon, he might decide to force his way out of town.

We’ve already seen his frustrations boil over with Williams on the sidelines in Game 7.

Disgruntled superstars get general managers and coaches fired in the NBA.

Ayton has options. There are teams with salary cap space and a need at center.

“A lot of other teams,” said Pinkus, the salary-cap guru, “view him as the right investment and would … certainly go out of their way to get a guy who’s arguably one of the top two-way centers, offense-defense, in the league. Not that he’s perfect, but I think they’re a market for him.”

The Suns should pay Deandre Ayton.

But they should also make it clear that they’re going to support him and rely on him.

They should make sure he wants to stay, too.

Reach Moore at gmoore@azcentral.com or 602-444-2236. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @SayingMoore.

There’s plenty Moore where this came from. Subscribe for videos, columns, opinions and analysis from The Arizona Republic’s award-winning sports team.